Buying music these days is like staking your entertainment dollar to one in a circle of fast-spinning tops: Several similar-looking formats appear poised to replace the standard compact disc. So how to tell which is the "best" and, more important, which will be the last to fall?
Millions of CD recordings are sold in the US each year about 882 million in 2001 alone. But consumers' interest in the reigning audio format is flagging. Last year, sales fell for the first time since 1983.
The drop-off did not go unnoticed by music stores, which reduced their CD orders by 7 percent during the first half of this year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
The group attributes the decline to technology-savvy consumers who now "rip" (download) songs from the Internet or "burn" copies using a computer or CD recorder.
One result: Music companies are scrambling to find a more secure alternative to the CD.
The pitch to consumers, many of them feeling quite comfortable with the standard discs they now have: New, protected formats also offer richer sound.
"The [standard] compact disc is a format that has come to the end of its run," says Jerry Del Colliano, publisher of Audio Revolution, an audio-video industry magazine.
Two new music formats are considered likely successors. Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD Audio (DVD-A), say most experts, offer big improvements in sound quality over standard CDs (depending in part on the quality of the rest of a listener's audio system, and even the types of music he or she favors).
Both technologies also offer copy-protection as a standard feature. Only some CDs are now locked against duplication.
Regardless of which format wins broader appeal, most experts believe that for the foreseeable future consumers will continue to store music on discs, rather than just computer hard drives and MP3 players.
"Just as people make prints of digital photos that are meaningful to them, a disc is much more enduring than a digital file," says Carl Holec, a consumer-electronics analyst with ARS, a technology-research firm in La Jolla, Calif.
"History shows that it takes about 25 years to get rid of core technologies," says Ryan Jones, a media and entertainment analyst with the Yankee Group, a Boston-based market-research firm. "This is not yet a perfect digital world."
The simple reason consumers will ultimately buy into the new formats: They sound better, experts say. "It's like hearing the difference between a 120 horsepower Jetta and a 400 horsepower Ferrari," says Mr. Del Colliano.
The sound enhancement is achieved in a few ways. First, both SACD and DVD-A can hold more digital information. They do not compress the music as tightly, which gives a recording a broader range of sound.
"The idea is to bring the warmth, depth, and breadth of vinyl records into the digital domain," says Dave Migdal, a spokesman for Sony Electronics, which developed and is now a leading promoter of SACD.
Many SACD and DVD-A discs are also engineered to play in surround sound. That means consumers can hear music out of six speakers, rather than two.
The cost of both formats has dropped significantly in the past two years. The average price of SACDs is about $18, a bit more than standard CDs.
Consumers must play the discs on an SACD player in order to hear the enhanced recording, though many discs typically labeled "hybrid stereo" will play unenhanced on an old machine. (Discs that won't will be labeled "single track.")
Players offered by Kenwood, Sharp, and Sony also play standard CDs and cost as little as $300.
DVD-A discs cost about $24, but they all play in the DVD players many consumers already use to watch movies. They can make use of the video capability, too, because the DVD-A discs often include added features, such as music videos.
Those two factors, say many audio experts, give DVD-A a marketing edge over SACD.
Manufacturers like Pioneer are just now offering home-theater systems that include DVD players equipped with both Super Audio and DVD-A features.
"Where the [recording] industry is going to have to go is integrating digital video with enhanced audio," says Mr. Jones.
Currently, there is a relatively small selection of "advanced resolution" discs on the market. Consumers have only about 650 Super Audio titles (150 in surround sound) and 150 DVD-A titles to choose from.
Even big retailers only carry about four dozen albums in either format, and most of the discs are rereleases.
"There's no demand for them," says Kevin Pedro, a salesman at Strawberries Music and Video in Warwick, R.I. "We hesitate to carry them until they're really popular."
Expect heavy promotion. The music industry is ramping up its support of the formats, observers say, because standard CDs are much more vulnerable to copying.
"[The music industry] would like nothing more than these formats to take off, because of copy protections," says Jones. "It gives them a chance to start from scratch."